““It is international fight week,” announcer Todd Grisham said moments before the headlining fight started at The Ultimate Fighter 25 Finale, “and there are some very big fights this weekend. But few if any are expected to be better than the one we’re about to witness.” That turned out to be a prescient comment. Not only was the main event between Michael Johnson and Justin Gaethje the best fight of International Fight Week, it surpassed every other fight from 2017.
There was, indeed, a lot of hype leading up to the fight. It was Gaethje’s Ultimate Fighting Championship debut after going on a TKO tour in the World Series of Fighting, where he was the 5 time defending lightweight champion. He didn’t just bring his championship experience with him; “The Highlight” brought his undefeated, 17-0 record into the promotion, and only two of those fights had gone the distance. Gaethje had a hard-earned reputation for being one of the most violent, exciting, leave-it-all-in-the-cage kind of warriors in the entire sport.
Yet he was the underdog going into his Octagon debut, and for good reason. Gaethje was impressive on paper, but he was relatively untested. Johnson was not a showcase opponent brought in to lose. He was a top five lightweight who had hovered around title contention for years. Johnson was coming off a tough 2016 where he knocked out streaking contender Dustin Poirer and then got pummeled by Khabib Nurmagomedov in Sherdog’s 2016 Beatdown of the Year. Still, at 31 years old, Johnson remained a factor in the UFC’s most talented division. His hand speed, athleticism, and diverse skillset were all tools that Gaethje had never dealt with in the WSOF. “The Menace” entered the bout a slight, -155 favorite when the cage doors closed.
They didn’t touch gloves before the fight…”Like